Emotional Dysregulation at Taxpayer’s Expense

Photo from the New York Times

For young people and adults alike, emotional dysregulation creates a perpetual self-sabotaging cycle that won’t end without intervention. Because the system is set up for taxpayers to pay for Adult Intervention instead of Youth Intervention, it’s going to get worse going forward and at taxpayers expense.

There are endless stories in the news each day about young people committing violent acts or other various types of anti-social behavior. We all see it way too often.

These stories make me sick to my stomach because it is my job to get people to understand the vicious cycle we are locked into. There is no need for our young people to grow up in this way – it can and should be different.

Thankfully, most situations that young people face do not escalate to violence. Many young people have received the support they need to problem solve and navigate the problems that life can throw at them.

But way too many don’t have that support and we as a society are failing them with broken systems. This leads to our hard-earned tax dollars continually wasted in supporting a self-perpetuating harmful cycle.

Youth Intervention at any phase of the emotional dysregulation cycle can break the cycle

At each step of this cycle, there are golden opportunities to intervene. To understand the emotional dysregulation cycle and how it can be broken, let’s consider an example of a girl fighting with her friend over a boyfriend.

  1. Emotional dysregulation: She may feel disrespected, embarrassed, stupid or hurt when told her friend was seen with her boyfriend. Unless these emotions are handled properly they will create turmoil and lead to the next phase of the cycle.
  2. Cognitive dysregulation: She may start to believe that others are out to get her or that she needs to humiliate her friend or her boyfriend. Unless these cognitions are put into proper perspective they will cause stress and lead to the next phase.
  3. Behavioral regulation: She concludes that others must be held accountable because the emotional and cognitive dysregulation are unbearable, so she acts out. Acting out leads to the next phase.
  4. Tension release: Acting out behaviorally will release the tension – that act itself is reinforcing. The release is needed regardless of the consequence.
  5. Remorse or Shame: The cycle may continue based on her emotional outcome. Shame is the feeling you get from others; they tell you that you are supposed to feel bad for your actions. Remorse is the feeling you get when you let yourself down; you feel bad because you didn’t want to act that way.

When young people do not get the intervention they need, they grow into adults caught in this dysfunctional cycle. It strengthens over time and becomes increasingly difficult to break.

Let’s ensure that all young person have a caring adult in their lives to support them

Each of us has a role to play and certainly as youth workers that is our main function. We all must be advocates for timely interventions.

It is fiscally prudent to help young people develop into healthy adults, but the current system is broken and has to change. It will take a willingness to realize that not helping our young people is self-sabotaging our own future.


Paul Meunier is the Executive Director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA).
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